Where Have All the Phantoms Gone?
How a fighter-bomber-recon-attack superstar ended up as fodder for target practice.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
(Page 4 of 8)
The C variant had a number of design problems; one of the biggest was lack of a gun. The rules of engagement over Vietnam required that an adversary be identified visually before a missile could be fired at it. The MiGs were small, and to make the ID, shooters had to get close, often much less than the minimum distance that the AIM-7 radar-guided and AIM-9B heat-seeking missiles required to hit a target. At short range, “if you didn’t have a gun, you couldn’t shoot down anything,” says Richard Keyt. The quick fix was the SUU-16/A gun pod with the M61A1 20-mm cannon.
But without a lead-computing sight and with no tracer ammunition, F-4C pilots were denied the visual cues needed to correct aiming errors. Then, in 1967, the F-4D arrived. The D model introduced a lead-computing optical sight for use with the gun pod. In addition, the normal ammunition load now included tracers.
On November 6, 1967, the gunfighter Phantom proved its worth. Captain Darrell “D” Simmonds and First Lieutenant George H. McKinney Jr. were escorting a flight of F-105s that came under attack by two MiG-17s. “We picked up the MiG-17s visually that were shooting at the Thuds [F-105s],” says Simmonds. “I was able to get in there and maneuvered for a perfect ‘uphill dart’ shot. I hit him, came alongside, and looked at him, and he looked at me, then ejected just before the plane hit the trees.” McKinney spotted another MiG-17 and Simmonds swung into a hard turn, accelerating as he lined up for the shot. “We were close, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” the pilot remembers. “I fired and he blew up.” Later, Simmonds realized: “We had used just 497 rounds for the two kills—less than five seconds of firing.”
The D model, however, was not a cure-all. “The guns on the D hung externally, on the centerline, and that created drag,” says Keyt. As for the missiles, the underperforming AIM-9B was abandoned for the Hughes AIM-4D Falcon. Designed to bring down strategic bombers, it required cooling of the seeker head prior to launch and needed a direct hit to score a kill. As pilots found out during what became known as the “Falcon Fiasco,” it came up short in a dogfight. Major James R. Chamberlain, a backseater stationed with the “Gunfighters”—the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang—notes, “The biggest problem with the AIM-4D was the limited amount of cooling time available [two minutes or less], which meant that the missile could not be pre-cooled for a quicker lock-on. And, once available liquid nitrogen was consumed, the missile was a blind, dead bullet—derisively called the ‘Hughes Arrow.’ ” After firing four of the missiles in combat without success, Robin Olds insisted the missiles cost him his fifth kill. He ordered them removed from his fleet.
The Air Force soon trashed the AIM-4D. Newer Sidewinders were substituted. The military also recognized the benefits of an internal gun: The F-4E, introduced in 1967, had an M-61A cannon mounted beneath a solid-state AN/APQ-120 radar, both inside the aircraft nose. During the time Richard Keyt’s 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron was based at Korat air base in Thailand, five squadron aircrews were credited with MiG kills, and four used the internal gun.
In 1973, during my third tour in Southeast Asia, I was assigned to the early E model. It was a dream to fly, not only because of the improvements made in gun and missile technology but also because the Air Force had realized the folly of putting two pilots in a fighter. After 1967, virtually all the GIBs—guys in back—were either navigators or radar intercept operators.
The follow-on Es brought enhancements: A horizontal tailplane with a fixed inverted slat gave improved control at high angles of attack. Leading-edge slats on the wings enabled tighter turns at slow maneuvering speeds. A Northrop system called TISEO (target identification system, electro-optical) identified airborne targets.
By the time my final tour was up, in 1974, a fleet of Phantom variants had safely taken me through a gauntlet of fire and flying experiences that would constitute the greatest adventures of my life.